The word “heritage” gets thrown around pretty frequently these days; in a digital age where notoriety can come and go overnight, every start-up wants to put a pair of antlers on the wall to impart some sense of history. However, when vintage photos of a long-standing brand’s headquarters include a horse and buggy out front—you can rest assured that it possesses the know-how and work ethic to truly stand the test of time.
MEN’S SHOP DAILY: Faribault Woolen Mill has been in business for nearly 150 years. How did the mill get started, and what have been some highlights in the company’s history?
FARIBAULT CREATIVE DIRECTOR JOHN MOOTY: “The mill started in 1865 as a carding facility for local farmers to turn their raw materials into finished product. In the early 1890s, the mill picked up a military contract that allowed it to expand the operation and move to a location on the other side of town [in Faribault, Minnesota], where it sits today. That contract was the West Point contract; the mill supplied blankets to soldiers in both world wars, and we’re actually still producing for that contract—same blanket, under the same specs, so it’s kind of a special story. It integrates a connection from our past, to keep being able to produce it today. Through the next 100 years, the mill was responsible for some critical innovations in moth-proofing wool blankets and introducing the Park-A-Robe, which is a travel throw, during the mill’s heyday in the 1950s—so some incredible innovations through that entire period. In 2009, the mill shut down for the first time in its entire career. All the employees were asked to leave, blankets were still on the looms half-woven, people left their belongings as-is and everything pretty much sat there untouched for two years…
“…During that time, in 2010, the mill flooded. It actually sits on the Cannon River, which runs through town. It was hit with a 500-year flood, so the whole lower level of the mill was flooded; it was filled with machinery, with nobody to really oversee it and take care of it. All of the machinery that was still working was tagged to be shipped over to Pakistan, and they were going to liquidate all of the equipment that was in the facility and shut it down completely. Before that happened, my dad and his cousin Paul came in and chose to reopen the mill; they got the rights to both the brand and the facility. That was 2011. We rehired a lot of the workers who had previously been working there for 40-plus years—many of those who had been let go in 2009 were still unemployed, because the skill set that they had developed was so specific. So we gave them the chance to come back and continue their practice, and to teach a new set of workers for moving into the future. It was just a really incredible sequence of events for the mill—from shutting down, being flooded, to getting back to producing what it does best and what it’s known for.”
What caused the mill to shut down in 2009?
“The main cause was overseas competition. Also at the time, the mill owned a cotton facility in South Carolina that was taking over a lot of the attention of the business as a whole—they kind of lost focus on the special and unique attributes that the woolen mill had. Since we’ve reopened it, the direction has been a little bit more defined—how the product should look and feel, how we’re positioning it, and who ultimately is the one that will act on purchasing it.”
Describe the steps involved in creating a Faribault blanket. How does the process today compare to the process 100 years ago?
“That’s the cool thing about it: The process really hasn’t changed. Not only the process, but also the machinery. We’re the last vertically integrated, purely domestic wool operation in the country. We bring in raw fiber, which is already domestic, and through our process, it’s dyed, it’s carded, it’s woven, and it’s finished, cut and sewn—all in our one facility, under one roof.”
That’s pretty incredible.
“It really is. It’s like stepping into a time machine. We’re fortunate in the fact that we don’t really need to make anything up—all we need to do is keep doing what the mill does best, and sharing that story, and sharing its quality, with those who appreciate it.”
You mentioned your dad and his cousin purchased the mill. Are they related to the original family that owned it? Or is your family more of a new generation?
“This would be a new generation. We didn’t have any involvement or association with previous ownership, but it’s been fun to reconnect with the Klemer family, who—I don’t know if it’s their great-great-grandfather, or what the lineage is—but their relative was the one who started the mill, so they were involved in its ownership for a long period of time. We’ve had a good standing relationship with them, and it’s fun for them to come in and share their stories of everything that they’ve experienced with the mill.”
How do you find inspiration for creating new Faribault products?
“A lot of the inspiration has come from just rediscovering the archives. For us, being new blood into the facility and to the company as a whole, that discovery process has been pretty incredible. We’re experiencing these archives and these aesthetics for the first time, so the discovery process is fun, and a journey—thinking through what has been done, what has been lost and, and how should those designs and constructions be adjusted to maintain that authenticity and the substance they carried, but also to have relevance in today’s market.”
What’s the relationship like between Faribault Woolen Mill, and the town of Faribault, Minnesota, where you’re located?
“You used to be able to just address a letter to ‘Faribo,’ and it would show up at the mill—and now, the town has kind of embraced that motto or that nickname. I think that starting with that, and being a big employer within the area, and seeing it come back to life, I think it’s been fun for the people who work the mill who live in the town, and also just people in Faribault being able to cheer it on and be a part of it. It’s been a pretty special thing to see come to life.”
Where did you grow up?
“I’ve grown up in Minnesota my entire life. That’s one of the big reasons why we found the love for the mill—how do we revive a historic Minnesota business that shouldn’t just be tossed to the wayside? How do you reintroduce it in a way that does it justice, and gives it an opportunity to keep moving forward?”
The theme of our current Pop-In Shop, LET’S GO!, is travel, road trips and adventure. What are some of your favorite places you’ve visited in the USA?
“My absolute favorite adventure is heading up to the Boundary Waters—that’s up toward the border of Minnesota and Canada, in Quetico-Superior National Forest. Just getting out, whether it’s with friends or with family—just an escape, and tuning out everything else that’s going on in your life, and having a few days of solitude to just sit and relax and take everything in, in its natural state. That’s definitely my favorite adventure spot of all time.”
Any tips for a successful road trip?
“It’s positive attitude. Even when you talk about preparation, I think there’s an entertaining aspect of lack of preparation—so I think that, as long as you bring a positive attitude and people you care about, that’s pretty much all you need for a successful road trip. From there, you can figure it out.”
What sets Faribault blankets apart from other wool blankets?
“I think it’s the whole process of people, of raw materials, of the machinery, and the process that it goes through in the mill. It always yields something unique. You know what you’re going to get, you know exactly how it’s going to come out, and just through that entire process and the hands that it goes through—they’re trustworthy, they’re seasoned, and they’re experts. I think it’s a pretty trustworthy process that we have there, and that’s due to the people, the machinery, and the way that we’ve always done it.”
What are the advantages of wool as a material?
“Wool, in its natural state, is a pretty incredible fiber. It really doesn’t need any alterations or modifications, because it’s naturally warm, it’s fire resistant, and it’s an incredibly rugged fabric. I would say that you can pretty much take it anywhere, do anything with it, and it should still perform and keep you warm.”
What would you say are some of the best ways to put a Faribault blanket to use?
“I think that’s the beauty of it: It can go anywhere. So whether it’s in your bed, in the back of your car, if you’re taking it on your camping trip, or you’re bringing it to a game—it can go with you anywhere, and it can really do anything. A blanket is just a universal, incredibly versatile tool that always finds itself in pretty incredible situations. Any situation where you’re using a blanket, odds are, you’re having a good time, you’re comfortable, and you’re just there relaxing.”
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